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Barges Stuck Ms River*

Barges run aground in St. Paul, halting Mississippi shipping

Bill McAuliffe

Star Tribune

Friday, July 13, 2001

At least two groups of barges loaded with corn ran aground in the middle of the Mississippi River near downtown St. Paul Wednesday night, prompting an abrupt interruption of grain traffic that could last into next week.

The incident appears to be yet another symptom of this year's weather extremes: sediment from several months of floods and high water has begun to settle and fill the shipping channel during the recent weeks of dry weather and slowing current.

"The bottom came too close to the top," said Lee Nelson, president of Upper River Services Inc., a St. Paul barge-servicing company that assembled some of the tows, or clusters of barges, that ran aground.

Dennis Erickson, chief of operations for the St. Paul office of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is responsible for maintaining a 9-foot channel for navigation in the river, said the grounding clearly means loaded barges will not be able to pass through St. Paul until the channel is dredged. That might not be completed until next week.

That will delay barges from grain elevators upstream and along the Minnesota River at Savage and Shakopee. Nelson said corn shipping seemed to have been picking up in recent weeks, which might have been in response to recent 14-month highs in corn prices. Those price spikes, too, have been weather-related, coming in response to warnings of heat-related threats to this year's Midwestern corn crop.

Nelson said a group of six barges first ran aground between 8 p.m. and midnight Wednesday near Childs and Warner roads, where the Mississippi bends southward and widens dramatically. A tow with 12 barges headed for New Orleans soon met the same fate.

"They stubbed their tow," Nelson said.

The tows were disassembled and freed by midmorning Thursday. There were apparently no injuries or lost grain.

The Corps of Engineers was testing the newly shallow area Wednesday to gauge the scope of the problem.

Erickson said the agency would bring in an emergency dredge by Saturday. If the job calls for it, the corps will bring its larger dredge, the William A. Thompson, upriver from south of La Crosse, Wis., where it has been working to maintain the 9-foot channel.

Erickson said the area where the groundings occurred is dredged by the corps "every so often" because the widening and slowing of the river there allows river-borne sediments to drop to the bottom, especially after floods. He could not recall when the last grounding occurred.

"We try to pride ourselves on avoiding these things," he said. "We'll get it open as soon as possible."

Bill McAuliffe is at mcaul@startribune.com .

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